President Macron of France announced yesterday that, as of 2019, school will be compulsory in the country for all children from age 3, making France the country with the lowest compulsory age of education in the European Union. Apart from a few European countries, which begin compulsory education at four years of age, eight countries in the EU start it at five years, and almost half of EU members start it at six.
Already today, 97% of children aged 3 years old (and almost 100% of children aged 4 and 5) go to pre-primary school in France. This new policy, therefore, would only affect access for about 25,000 children in total. This change, therefore, in Macron’s own words, is to ‘even out social inequalities’.
These concern children in overseas French territories, where the enrolment ratio is about 70%, and in some of the more marginalised communities in the French mainland. The President backed up the importance of early childhood education for closing these gaps by citing a statistic from the United States that four-year-old children from marginalized communities have heard on average 30 million fewer words compared with children from a privileged background.
But, how much of this is just symbolism? Certainly, France spends 0.8 per cent of its GDP on pre-primary education — above average across the OECD. But this amounts to 7,800 dollars per student, less than the average among EU countries. In Denmark, 14,000 dollars are spent per student for example – almost the double.
In addition, no doubt partly down to France having some of the highest birth rates in Europe, there were 22 children for each teacher in 2014, meaning France has a long way to go before catching up with some of the Nordic countries. There are only 6 students per teachers in Sweden, 10 for each teacher in Demark and Finland, for example, and only 13 per teacher on average across the whole of the EU.
Looking at progress over time, as well, it appears that other countries in the EU are not as far behind as initially meets the eye, and are catching up since subject to a new EU goal set in 2002 in Barcelona for 90% of 3-6 year olds to be in education. It is currently being considered to extend the EU benchmark on pre-primary school participation to this age group for 2030.
Symbolic or not, it is yet another sign of the importance that Macron places on education at home and abroad. “The mother of all battles is in primary schools”, he famously said in November 2016 during his televised debate with Marine Le Pen during the presidential election campaign. Just last month, France co-hosted the GPE Financing conference with Senegal, putting themselves on the world stage for education, along with increasing its financial contribution ten-fold to €200 million for the 2018-2020 period.
This announcement will help raise awareness if nothing else of the important role that pre-primary education plays in helping children be “ready for primary education”, as stated in SDG target 4.2.